- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Tiger Woods began yesterday as a runaway Wanamaker favorite and finished it looking like a probable weekend absentee.

Golf’s 29-year-old Goliath opened the 87th PGA Championship with an unsightly 75 on Baltusrol’s 7,392-yard, par-70 Lower Course, recording his worst first round at a major in relation to par since he turned professional in August 1996.

That left Woods tied for 113th in the 156-man field and eight shots behind a six-player scrum at the top of the leader board highlighted by world No.4 Phil Mickelson. Not only do Woods’ chances of winning a third major on the season look desperately slim, Tiger will need a serious second-round rally to avoid missing the cut at a major for the first time in 36 Slam starts as a pro.

“It’s frustrating — every hole there was something I did wrong,” Woods said. “If I hit it in the fairway, which didn’t happen too often, I hit a poor iron shot. And if I hit a good approach, I missed the putt.”

Just as it did at Pinehurst two months ago in the U.S. Open, Woods’ usually reliable putter betrayed him at Baltusrol. Though he didn’t strike the ball up to his standard from tee to green, his defining struggles came on the layout’s massive greens.

Woods arrived at the event averaging just under 29 putts a round this season, and his 35 first-round scrapes with the short stick left him 155th in the field in a category where he normally excels.

“I felt good over putts all day — my pace was just a little off. I left so many putts on the edge,” said Woods, who had a lone birdie (No.8) on his closing nine overwhelmed by four bogeys (Nos.10, 14, 18, 4) and a double-bogey (No.7). “It took a lot of mental energy out of me to try and stay patient and calm and focused with the way I started.

“I could easily have lost it and packed it in and gone home. … It could have been worse. If I don’t grind out there and stay focused, it’s definitely snowing.”

“Snowing” is tourspeak for posting a round in the 80s, a round beginning with the numeral all golfers refer to with loathing as a “snowman.”

Today’s cut will slice the field to the low 70 scores and ties. Only once before as a pro has Woods been in such a precarious position entering the second round of a major. Two years ago at the Masters, Woods opened with a 76 (4 over) and needed a 10-foot par putt on his 36th hole to post 149 and make the cut on the number. There are 80 players at 2 over or better at Baltusrol, meaning Woods likely will need to shoot 68 or 69 today to avoid an early flight back to Orlando.

“Nobody’s going to shoot 63 out there, so I’m not out of it,” said Woods, ever the optimist. “I just need to keep chipping away at it and fighting my way back toward par and the leaders.”

Among the six players sharing the lead after opening 67s, perhaps only flagging 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis rates as a surprise. The other five co-leaders (Mickelson, Stuart Appleby, Rory Sabbatini, Trevor Immelman and Stephen Ames) all have either multiple PGA Tour victories or recent top-10 finishes in the majors (Immelman and Ames).

Of the six, only Mickelson can claim a top-10 world ranking and marquee status. The Candidate, as he has been nicknamed by fellow players and the media for his smile-a-second love affair with the public or anyone holding a camera, Mickelson employed the same game plan he used to author his major breakout at last year’s Masters to conquer Baltusrol yesterday.

Just as he did at the Masters, Lefty decided to take half of the trouble at Baltusrol out of play by hitting a soft fade off every teebox. Why he diverted from the philosophy that earned him a green jacket for the six majors in the interim is anybody’s guess, but Mickelson hit 10 of 14 fairways using the soft cut yesterday.

Like most of the rest of the field, he started slowly on Baltusrol’s brutal first seven holes (1 over), but surged to the finish courtesy of a trio of 35-foot birdie bombs (Nos.9, 10 and 14) and two-putt tweeter on the easily reachable par-5, 18th.

“I feel a lot more confident in my game this week than I did heading into the other three majors,” said Mickelson. “I really want to put everything I have into finishing the year off right here at the PGA.”

Interestingly, Mickelson’s defining moment yesterday came en route to a bogey at the sixth. After missing the fairway desperately to the left, Mickelson played up the adjacent 17th fairway and hit a towering lob wedge over the green-encircling trees and gallery that spun within five feet of the hole and electrified the crowd.

After the shot, Mickelson ran through his doting gallery to the green, exchanging high-fives and fist bumps with more than a dozen adoring fans.

“That was kind of cool there, going through the gallery after hitting right over them,” said Mickelson, who unfortunately missed the par-saving point-blank putt. “I just think the people here are awesome to play in front of, and they support so many great championships that I really enjoy coming here and playing.”

“Here” would be the metro New York area. The same basic fan base memorably embraced Mickelson at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage and last year’s Open at Shinnecock Hills (both on Long Island). Mickelson recorded runner-up finishes in both events, but not before the public made their champion of preference obvious.

With Tiger seemingly out of the picture and the rest of the Big Five either absent or in Mickelson’s wake, Lefty and his army are bracing for another Big Apple-area charge.

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